As we grow older, and start to face our own mortality, our thoughts can turn more often to the question of whether there is life after death, and indeed what that might look like.
As we grow older, and start to face our own mortality, our thoughts can turn more often to the question of whether there is life after death, and what that might look like.
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, there is puzzlement at the ‘undiscovered country’, a term used to describe what lies beyond life, when the titular character muses on the state after death.
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all’
Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
In the above verse Hamlet contemplates suicide as a means to escape a huge moral dilemma. Earlier in the play, he thinks death may be a way to find peace, saying ‘To die, to sleep’. But then he changes his mind again and becomes fearful of dying, speaking of the ‘undiscovered country’ from where ‘no traveller returns’ to express the enormity of choosing to enter such a great unknown.
This unexplored land does not comfort Hamlet, but fills him with ‘the dread of something after death’. This fear of dying can either be fear of a nothingness, or of in fact of an eternal life. Hamlet seems to experience both of these fears. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that if we leave our fears unspoken or speak them only to ourselves, as Hamlet does, then we will be unable to receive support from loved ones in this very difficult and personal struggle.
Rev Andrew Goodhead, chaplain to St Christopher’s Hospice, is asked about the big questions very often and says it’s important that these questions are expressed:
“Even if the response coming from the person sitting listening with them is just to acknowledge how big these questions are.”
Common questions he is asked as a chaplain are:
Instead of rushing to provide answers or dismissing questions as unimportant, Rev Andrew suggests it’s useful to find out what might have prompted the question in the first place.
“Sometimes I will say ‘what is it that makes you think you might not get in to Heaven?’ and allow the person to respond to that. And then open up the conversation about ‘what do you think Heaven is like?’ Do you think that sometimes the way that we think about the afterlife is much more our own construct, than the way in which it actually is? Don’t you think that God might be rather more generous to us than we’re allowing him to be?’’
We also ask big questions after the death of a spouse or close friend. We wonder how we are going to adjust to life without that significant person in our lives. In his role as a hospice chaplain, Rev Andrew says “unless we’re willing to hear and answer the big questions – we’re not doing our job properly, none of us are doing our job.”
He encourages people to talk about these things, long before the imminent death of a loved one prompts the conversation:
“Living through life, when dying seems a long way off, you can put off the questions about have I done enough to get into Heaven or have I been good enough.”
“Instead, if the way we lived was formed by these questions, we could approach death with peace of mind.”
Christians believe that Jesus is the revealed person of God to humanity and therefore take hope in his description of what is to come after death, believing that he speaks with authority and that his words serve as a map of this ‘undiscovered country’.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus often spoke of Heaven and gave details in the analogies and stories he would use. In John’s gospel, he uses the analogy of a house when comforting his disciples’ fears, saying:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
John 14: 2-5
Jesus also iterated throughout his teaching that the actions of our lives will affect our ability to enter Heaven, saying:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Therefore, Christians look to the way that Jesus lived as the measure for our lives, to one day be with him in Heaven.
Hamlet dreads the afterlife because he does not know what it will be like, others fear it because of the idea that it is an eternal existence. Recently, Pope Francis addressed this fear of what heaven is like as a practical experience:
“…’So what’s Heaven?’ some ask. There we begin to be unsure in our response. We don’t know how best to explain Heaven. Often we picture an abstract and distant Heaven… And some think: ‘But won’t it be boring there for all eternity?’ No! That is not Heaven. We are on the path towards an encounter: the final meeting with Jesus… Heaven will be this encounter, this meeting with the Lord who went ahead to prepare a place for each of us. This increases our faith.”
Pope Francis, 2018
Many believe that the afterlife is a purely spiritual experience, but Christian tradition has always stated that the afterlife is a physical experience also. Fr Peter Harries, Lead Chaplain at University College London Hospital, explains to people the “Christian tradition of the resurrection of the body and eternal life, rather than just survival of some essence or some meaning living on in the memories of others.”
Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans writes that we have our confidence of a resurrection of both body and soul from the resurrection of Jesus:
“Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.”
“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it… White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of The King